When William Shatner opened on Broadway last February, he wasn't nearly as confident as his show's title indicated.
The actor's one-man show sported the cheeky moniker, "Shatner's World: We Just Live In It." But a nasty elemental force had invaded that world as curtain time approached. It wasn't a simple case of stage nerves or wariness about the critics — it was an acute misery right around the midsection.
"I opened on Broadway with a stomach flu," Shatner, 81, said by phone last month. "How's that for a starter? So it was the challenge of doing a one-man show on Broadway and the absolute possibility of being laughed off the stage, which is the actor's nightmare, and then the night before opening I got the stomach flu. You don't want leave the bathroom for very long. A three-yard radius is as far as you want to go, and I had to go onstage.
"I thought of it as an adventure, and it was."
Turning adventures, dignified or otherwise, into breezy anecdotes has long been a part of Shatner's persona; few actors have proven so game at being self-effacing. When this reporter asked how to address him — heeding the fact that, per the show's title, it is Shatner's world and the rest of us live in it — the actor responded that "Bill" was fine.
The man who played Captain Kirk may be famous for many things, but taking himself too seriously isn't among them. In his 2008 autobiography, "Up Till Now," Shatner kids repeatedly about his penchant for saying "yes" to countless projects, about his history of taking physical risks, and being at the mercy of the Hollywood system. Playing himself once on "Saturday Night Live," he famously urged a convention of hardcore Trekkies to "get a life."
So when "Shatner's World" stops at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts next week, it's not unreasonable to guess that the stomach-flu story will crop up somewhere, at least as an aside. In Shatner's show, as well as his book, few topics are off limits, and he admits to improvising sometimes.
But on top of the kidding and the more reflective moments, Shatner hopes the show will have an inspirational message to the audience — namely, that those in attendance will learn to embrace a three-letter word he's embraced throughout his career.
"Even if terrible things happen to you, you still have to say 'yes' to life," he said.
A new final frontier
Think of Shatner as the anti-Daniel Day-Lewis.
Unlike the "Lincoln" star, who sometimes holds out for years between movie roles, Shatner isn't known for taking a methodical approach to his career. Over the last half-century, he's starred on Broadway, in movies and on TV, recorded music (his 1968 album "The Transformed Man," which includes melodramatic readings of Beatles and Bob Dylan lyrics, has attained cult status), made the game-show rounds and penned sci-fi novels, among other endeavors.
Still, when Shatner got an invitation several years ago from an Australian production company to create "Kirk, Crane & Beyond" — an autobiographical show whose title refers to "Star Trek's" Kirk as well as Denny Crane, the pompous attorney on "Boston Legal" — he had a new challenge as a performer: to shed characters and make himself the lead. The show featured no one on stage but Shatner and a moderator who asked him questions.
"I had never done this sort of thing, but I thought, 'It's an interesting adventure, and if I fail miserably, Orange County won't hear about it because it's in Australia,'" Shatner joked.
The original show, which toured Australia and Canada, proved successful enough that Shatner decided to create a new version for the U.S. In "Shatner's World," he dispensed with the moderator and created a (mostly) scripted program, interspersing his recollections with video and audio clips that play onstage throughout.
Once the actor got used to the one-man form, he found it invigorating.
"The challenge was, could I keep your attention for 90 minutes, 100 minutes?" Shatner said. "Can I keep you as vitally interested when I walk on stage as when I walk off stage? I've established now that I can, and do. And that's where the challenge lay for me.
"Now it's not a challenge as to whether it will work. It's how I can make it come alive for these people on this night."